When he—and he is never named, only referred to as “he” or “him”—passes by Jane’s desk, we don’t see his face, but we can hear him mumbling orders to the underling executives surrounding him. He doesn’t speak to Jane (Julia Garner) or even acknowledge her, yet she stiffens as he approaches and even flinches at one point. Is this normal nervousness when the boss is around, or a sign that something more is amiss?
With her spare, clinical, incriminating filmmaking style—very little music, gray color scheme, fixed compositions—writer-director Kitty Green clearly communicates that something is deeply amiss. The Assistant, which follows a day in Jane’s life as she works on the bottom rung at a New York City film production company, meticulously chronicles the little details that reveal the boss to be an abusive tyrant who wields his power and influence to sexually manipulate actresses, waitresses—basically any woman he desires. (Harvey Weinstein is the film’s obvious model.)
There are very few conversations in The Assistant. Instead everything is communicated via seemingly innocuous images and sounds that are given, by the filmmaking, a sense of dread. An early shot of the boss’ office, from outside the door, positions his large, empty executive chair at the center of the screen, dominant and ominous. Later, we watch Jane at one of her many minor tasks: making photocopies of actresses’ headshots. As face after face spits out of the machine, it dawns on us that this is an assembly line of potential victims. During Jane’s fruitless, demoralizing visit to the company’s human-resources manager (Matthew Macfadyen), he pushes a metal box of tissues across his desk toward her and the scraping noise is the exclamation point on a soundtrack of incessant typing, phone ringing, and paper crumpling. All busy work meant to mask what’s really going on.
Green’s bold choice of technique pays off immensely; it isn’t long before this generic office space begins to feel suffocatingly claustrophobic. As we go through Jane’s day we come to understand the extent of the enabling support structure that must be in a place for a man to operate this way: the assistants who manipulate his schedule; the financial managers who fudge expenses; the chauffeurs who drive the women to hotels. Jane is not only a potential victim but also, as an assistant, complicit if she wants to keep her job. (One of the insidious elements is the way her job proper is commingled with the abuse, as is the case with those headshots.)
Garner gives a remarkable performance, especially considering she has very little dialogue with which to work. Jane wears a face of steely resolve, one that rarely reveals the roiling frustration, anger, fear, and helplessness churning inside of her. Yet here and there the performance gives us hints. Spending this day with Jane, we eventually realize it’s an endless cycle of typing, stapling, emailing—and flinches.